America's Senior Moment: The Most Rapidly Aging Cities


In the coming decades, the United States is going to look a lot greyer. By 2050, the number of Americans over 65 will almost double to 81.7 million, with their share of the overall population rising to 21 percent from roughly 15 percent now, according to Census projections. More than 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 every day.

Virtually every part of America will become more senior-dominated, but some more than others.

To determine where seniors are most heavily clustered, we examined 2014 American Community Survey data for the country’s 53 largest metropolitan statistical areas and looked at which areas have the highest percentages of seniors. In many ways these areas are already experiencing what most of the country will in the coming decades.

The most aged regions come largely in two forms. Retirement metro areas are older in large part due to longstanding patterns of senior migration. First on our list of most aged places is Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., where 18.7 percent of the population is over 65, well above the national average of 13.3 percent. Tucson, in dry and warm Arizona, ranks third at 17.7 percent while Miami is fourth, with 17 percent.

But many of America’s oldest metro areas have little in common with arid Arizona or steamy Florida. Many of the most senior-heavy areas are in the Rust Belt, which has been losing residents to other places for generations, particularly the young. This includes America’s second most senior-dominated metro area, Pittsburgh, where a remarkable 18.3 percent of the population is over 65, 26 percent higher than the national average. Other Rust Belt towns that are heavily grey include No. 5 Buffalo (16.7 percent senior); No. 6 Cleveland (16.5 percent); No. 7 Rochester, N.Y. (16.0 percent); No. 8 Providence, R.I. (15.8 percent), No. 9 Hartford (15.7 percent); and No. 10 St. Louis (14.9 percent). No. 11 Birmingham, Ala. (14.7 percent), although located in the South, has a long history as a heavy manufacturing center.

And where are seniors still relatively thin on the ground? Mostly in the booming sections of the Sun Belt, places that have long enjoyed considerable positive in-migration from both other states and abroad. Three of the five least senior-dominated places are in Texas, including Austin (9.4 percent), Houston (9.8 percent) and Dallas-Ft. Worth (10.2 percent). The other two include Salt Lake City, the family friendly Mormon capital where only 9.6 percent of residents are over 65 and high-tech capital Raleigh (10.6 percent).

Biggest Senior Gains

The picture is very different when we begin to look at where the share of seniors in the population has been growing the fastest. This reflects not so much better weather, per se, or the prevalence of older, declining industries, but the biggest migration pattern of the past 40 years: the movement of massive numbers of people to lower-cost, usually growing states.

Now many of these same people are reaching 65, and more will soon. Typical of areas that are still young but are now aging rapidly is Atlanta – the senior share of its population grew 20 percent between 2010 and 2014. This is well above the increase of 11.3 percent across all the 53 largest metropolitan areas. Other areas that combine overall migration gains with rapid rates of aging include Raleigh, where the senior share grew 18.1 percent over the time span we examined; Las Vegas, a major magnet for migrants for a generation, saw its share grow by 17.7 percent.

Some of the fastest-growing senior areas are also places that have been youth magnets, particularly in recent years. Take for example Portland, Ore., which is sometimes described as the “place young people go to retire.” Now more of the Rose City’s residents are actually retirees or heading in that direction; the share of seniors in Portland’s population grew by 17.4 percent from 2010 to 2014, the fourth-highest rate of any major metropolitan area. Other youth magnets, such as Austin, Denver and Charlotte, have also experienced higher than average senior share growth. All of these metropolitan areas ranked in the top third in domestic migration over the same period.

Why is this happening? Certainly in some places it’s a function of lower prices in these cities; seniors who can cash out of California or New York can feather their nest eggs by moving elsewhere and buying a cheaper home. For those who do not require nonstop sunshine, relocating to Austin, or such North Carolina burgs as Raleigh and Charlotte, does not require a commitment to shoveling snow. Even high-cost Portland and Denver are bargains compared to California and New York.

Another explanation may be that many parents are following their migrating children (and more importantly grandchildren) to these areas. A recent study ranks this among the biggest reason seniors move. Similarly, as many as one in four millennials have moved to be closer to their parents, often to enjoy life in more affordable communities and get help with raising their kids.

Back To The City?

The movement to Sun Belt cities, which tend to be more suburban with more dispersed employment, contradicts one of the favorite urban legends — that millions of aging boomers, now relieved of their children, have been leaving their suburban homes for core city apartments. Some assert that suburbs, being car oriented, will become impossible for seniors as they get older, although eventually autonomous vehicles could allow boomers to drive as long as they can live independently.

Yet as in so many demographic issues, the “back to the city” meme conflicts with both preferences and actual behavior of most seniors. The most recent decennial Census, for example, shows that the senior percentage share in both the inner core and older suburbs dropped between 2000 and 2010 while growing substantially in the newer suburbs and exurbs. The most recent data show these patterns continue. Since 2010 the senior population in core cities has risen by 621,000 while the numbers in suburbia have surged by 2.6 million.

“The back to the city” meme appeals to urban boosters and reporters but in reality the numbers behind it are quite small. A 2011 survey by the real estate advisory firm RCLCO found that among affluent empty nesters, 65% planned to stay in their current home, 14% expected to look for a resort-type residence, and only 3 percent would opt for a condominium in the core city. Most of those surveyed preferred living spaces of 2,000 square feet or more. RCLCO concluded that the empty nester “back to the city” condominium demand was 250,000 households nationwide, a lucrative but small market out of the 4.5 million empty nester households in the metropolitan areas studied.

Rather than move into the city, most boomers, if they move, head towards the periphery or out of town completely. A 2012 National Association of Realtors survey found that the vast majority of buyers over 65 years old looked in suburban areas, followed by rural locales. In contrast, relatively few seniors are likely to give up their homes for condos in the city center; a study by the Research Institute for Housing America suggested that barely 2 percent of all “empty nesters” seek an urban locale.

Looking Ahead

Where seniors move will do much to shape America’s future geography. In some places, notably in the Rust Belt, an aging population may suffer from the lack of young people to generate new wealth, pay taxes or provide them with services. In many others, notably in the Sun Belt, areas now built around youthful migration will have to prepare to accommodate many more aging people. And perhaps the biggest challenges will be felt by suburbs that, built for young families, now have to accommodate a growing senior population.

In the past we always associated change with the movements and desires of the young. But in the 21stcentury, it may well be the seniors, not the kids, who will be forging new paths in how American communities fare.

No. 1: Atlanta

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 20.3%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 10.8%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 48th

No. 2: Raleigh

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 18.1%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 10.6%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 49th

No. 3: Las Vegas

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 17.7%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 13.3%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 27th

No. 4: Portland

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 17.4%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 13.3%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 27th

No. 5: Jacksonville

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 17.1%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 14.2%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 16th

No. 6: Denver

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 16.4%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 11.7%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 46th

No. 7: Austin

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 16.3%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 9.4%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 53rd

No. 8: Phoenix

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 15.7%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 14.2%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 16th

No. 9: Sacramento

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 15.6%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 13.9%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 21st

No. 10: Tucson

Growth In Senior Share Of Population, 2010-14: 14.7%

Senior Share Of Population (over 65), 2014: 17.7%

Rank Among Major U.S. Cities By Pop. Share: 3rd

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Wendell Cox is Chair, Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California) and principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

"Senior Citizens Crossing" photo by Flickr user auntjojo.